On Saturday, we learned of the new v7.1 software release on the Tesla Model S—an update allowing owners to summon the car like a well-trained dog and make it park itself. But it’s not that weird, according to Tesla head honcho Elon Musk. He says we could see fully autonomous cars in a matter of two to three years.

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“If you’re in New York and the car’s in Los Angeles, you can summon your car to you from your phone and tell the car to find you, and it’ll automatically charge itself along the journey,” he said on a conference call before the Detroit Auto show.

But for now, the Model S itself will not only have autopilot features, but also the ability to open garage doors on its own, in order to park itself, via Tesla’s updated HomeLink feature. This all sounds about like the Smart House (and now, car) Disney movie that freaked me out when I was a kid.

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And Musk adds to the feeling of the future being upon us. Musk said the timetable for fully autonomous cars could be between 24 and 36 months away.

As for auto-steer in the newly updated and not completely autonomous Model S, Tesla tweaked the feature to restrict speeds in residential areas or ones that lack a center dividing line.

Well, when Tesla says “restrict,” it’s not much of a restriction at all. In those cases, the car will limit its speed to just five miles over the actual speed limit in Autopilot. Of course, if you want to be a total hooligan there’s nothing stopping you from just driving it yourself like a nut.

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When roads have faded dividing lines, an improvement on the Model S’ auto-steer will also help it to stay in its designated lane.

Other safety updates to the Autopilot system include a sytem that reduces the car speed as it approaches a bend in the road. That feature complements the aforementioned restriction that governs overall speed in specific, more dangerous situations.

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Tesla owners will also get to watch their car park itself from outside of the vehicle if they would like to, since the v7.1 update will park the car when the owner enables the feature, so long as the car is within 33 feet of the designated space. The same system allows a person to summon the car (although not with an obnoxious dog whistle, which would be so much more fun) from its spot.

The HomeLink feature will let the Model S open and close the garage door while parking as well, but it’s not all as swift and carefree as it seems. Tesla included a few restrictions in its announcement about the new update, including the fact that the car can’t detect certain narrow obstacles such as bikes, or those below the fascia and hanging from the ceiling. The Summon feature has a “cancel” button, which Tesla encourages users to keep their thumb on while monitoring the car’s maneuvering.

The Summon feature can also only be used on flat driveways, and Tesla warned owners to only use the feature on private property. Musk emphasized that by saying that the self-parking ability on the Model S “isn’t so much an autonomous feature as it is a remote-control feature.”

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“It’s still beta,” Musk said. “There are many different parking garages where it might not always work, so you can stop the auto-park function at any time by tapping the key.

“The car can even detect if a fairly small dog walks past,” he added. “It’s not absolutely perfect, but I think it’s probably better than a person right now.”

As far as the summoning feature is concerned, Tesla plans for the 33-foot range to greatly expand—soon. Within two years, Musk predicted that owners will be able to summon their car from across the country.

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“If you’re in New York and your car is in Los Angeles, you can summon your car to you from your phone and tell the car to find you,” Musk said. “It’ll automatically charge itself along the journey. I might be slightly optimistic about that, but not significantly optimistic.”

In getting from one place to another, Musk said autopilot “is better than human in highway driving, or at least it will be soon with machine learning.” If it’s not already better than human, Musk said it will be within the coming months.

But right now, Musk said the car still needs a human around, just in case.

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“The car currently has sensors to achieve that cross-country goal,” Musk said. “But you’d need more hardware and software, you’d need more cameras, more radars, redundant electronics, redundant power buses and that sort of thing.

“Right now, the driver is Plan B. If something goes wrong with the electronics, it falls to the driver. In the car [driving without a human behind the wheel], it’ll need to fall to another set of sensors in the car.”

On top of that, Musk said Tesla will indeed do a version of the creepy robot snake charger that we saw a prototype of earlier this year. They’ll try to make it less creepy, he added, but it’s also “sort of fascinating in its creepiness.”

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A few other notable improvements from the v7.1 update include multiple types of vehicle graphics on the autopilot-visualization displays, automatic speed adjustments when going around turns and signaling to exit highways with cruise control, as well as fewer false alerts with Forward Collision Warning.

These might all sound like baby steps, but it the future might just be arriving a lot sooner than we originally planned.


Photo credit: Raphael Orlove/Jalopnik

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Contact the author at alanis.king@jalopnik.com.